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Ethical Disruptions in the Developing World

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, July 30 2013

It can be tempting to treat technology as the Band-Aid of choice for problems that need solving in the developing world. That eagerness could contribute to the explosion of mobile and ICT initiatives. Unfortunately, some put the failure rate for ICT initiatives in developing countries as high as 85 percent. That is in part because of weaknesses in the initiatives, but also, perhaps, because technology is overused.

As a relatively new category of projects, ethical guidelines in ICT for development are still being discussed and debated.

Jennifer Chan is an associate faculty member at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Her work recently has been on crisis mapping, and she has consulted for organizations like Ushahidi. Chan was interviewed on ethics in ICT for development projects, and her first suggestion for a best practice is the “do no harm” principle:

ICT projects have potential for faster, more accurate and wider inclusion of information, but they also present vulnerabilities that can cause risk and potential harm. Information shared using technology can be accidentally misrepresented or interpreted, carelessly distributed without consent, and even intentionally manipulated for a multitude of purposes that are not in line with the good intentions of the ICT project. And there are additional vulnerabilities that lie within the technology itself. But the flip side is that these types of obstacles are frequently surmountable with a good framework for learning, iteration, and revisions embedded in the project.

Working with technology, it is helpful to recognize and accept the tenet that access to information is related in many ways to power. Understanding that first is key. Beyond thinking about how technology can influence the design of a project, organizations should seek to understand the existing information ecosystem by asking: What decisions would be made, or how would behavior change, on the basis of the information gathered with technology? Where are the vulnerabilities of information collection, sharing and communication that exist with the intended users and beneficiaries of the project, and with the technology itself?

Chan joins other voices that have been featured on techPresident in saying that user experience is key. She advocates involving as many users in the discussion as possible.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.